To Bake Sale or Not to Bake Sale? The American Parent’s Conundrum

In the past week, I have been asked by my kid’s school to donate $300, to read with my child, to cut out cereal box tops for another fundraiser, to pony up for the teachers’ holiday gifts, to help my kid with Spanish homework, to help my kid with English homework, to buy hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes for the classroom and to volunteer to sell Christmas trees at (yet another) fundraiser. (This is all happening in a city that spends $30,000 per pupil on public education, just by the by. More than twice the national average.)

Only one of these requests is consistently associated with kids actually learning. Which one do you think it is? (Fun game!)

Given that time, money and energy are limited, how to decide what to do—and what not to do? I could quit my job and just do nothing but manage these requests—but then where in God’s name would I get the money for all the fundraisers?!

Good news. This lovely international study of parents and children in 13 countrieshelps cut through the fog. My favorite finding: Parents can help their kids learn more and love reading more for years to come if they do one simple thing: Read. By themselves. For pleasure.

Yes, that’s right. No money or hand sanitizer required. All around the world, only 4 out of 10 parents in the survey read for pleasure on their own. They were too busy working, sleeping, watching TV and selling Christmas trees. But the ones who did tended to have children who performed significantly better on a test of critical thinking in reading by the time they were 15—even after controlling for the effects of family income.

“Read. It’s that simple. If parents – both mothers and fathers – don’t like to read novels, say, but prefer to read newspapers and magazines, that’s fine. What is important is showing children – of all ages – that reading is a daily, enjoyable, valuable activity, and that it is made even more pleasurable when people discuss what they have read with others.”

There’s more, obviously, and I encourage people to check out the full report. Tom Friedman wrote a great column about this a while back, but that was based on early findings—before this more detailed, highly readable report came out.

But wait. What am I thinking? You don’t have time to read an entire OECD report!

So for now, here is my own personal cheat sheet for parents trying to decide how to “involve” themselves in their kids’ schools without letting it consume their every waking hour:

1. Read. To yourself. To your kid. Especially when they are younger, but not just then. Talk about what you are reading and what they are reading their whole lives. Kids whose parents read themselves grow to enjoy reading more. In the complicated world of education data and international comparisons, few findings are as consistent, simple and cheap as this.

2. Talk to your kids about news, movies and, as they get older, complex social issues. All around the world, kids whose parents talk about the world with them on a regular basis are more adept at analyzing information and communicating their thoughts.

3. Repeat. Still have energy left over? Impressive. Then go ahead and bake banana bread if you want. Write checks if you can. But don’t assume your kid will learn more, or that the school will likely become more effective at its primary mission. That could be true, but I haven’t seen any evidence of it anywhere. And lots of people have looked.

Making costumes for the school play, chaperoning field trips, coaching sports teams: Those are the things that life is made of. Do them if you can. But Read and Talk first, just about every day. Then, if you don’t have energy and time left over for the other stuff, don’t feel bad about it for one second (I’m talking to you, Mothers).

If it helps, just remind yourself that parents who volunteer in school activities in 13 countries tend to have children who perform worse on a sophisticated international test of reading literacy. No one is sure why exactly (it may be that parents of kids who are already struggling in school then volunteer more to try to improve the situation). But for now, the best use of your time, statistically speaking, is to talk with your kid about the world—at home.

Oh, and for those of you still playing, the one thing that correlates with learning in the list at the top? Yeah, you guessed it… Reading. Isn’t it great when the right answer is the simplest one?

ParentingAmanda Ripley